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For Fat Bear Week, pick your favorite for this year’s chunky champ

Brown bears at Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska feast on salmon before hibernation. Watch them chow down on the webcam, then cast your vote.

A well-fed and heavy Otis catches a salmon in 2021 at Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. Otis has won the Fat Bear Week tournament four times. (Courtesy of Lian Law)

It’s chow-down time for the brown bears at Brooks Falls in southwestern Alaska. That means a daily diet of salmon, salmon and more salmon. A large adult male bear can catch and eat more than 30 a day. That’s more than 120 pounds of fish!

This happens all summer at Brooks Falls, a popular spawning site for sockeye salmon, which makes it a very popular fishing site for bears in Katmai National Park and Preserve. More than 80 gathered there last summer. Their fishing styles vary: Some scoop, some dive and one wise old fellow just plops in the river and waits for lunch to come swimming by.

Lian Law, visual information specialist at the park, said she never gets tired of watching the bears. “I get to see them, not in a zoo, but living their lives in their own habitat.” Ordinary moments for the bears — such as chasing gulls or playing with one another — are surprising and special when observed in the wild, she said.

With October approaching, the park’s 2,200 brown bears need to pack on a few final pounds before winter hibernation, during which they neither eat nor drink, but live off their stored fat. When spring arrives, they will have lost a third of their weight, and the salmon feeding frenzy will begin again. The bears will need to eat a year’s worth of food in the next six months.

Some people travel to Alaska to witness this spectacle. For the rest of us, the National Park Service and explore.org have set up live webcams along the river. Then they invite the public to vote online for their favorite tubby bear.

This annual competition, called Fat Bear Week, runs October 5 to 11 this year. Each day, pairs of bears face off. Those getting the most votes advance to the next round. At week’s end, a champion is declared.

Will it be last year’s winner, Otis, going for an unprecedented fifth title? Or Chunk, who, despite weighing more than 1,200 pounds, has yet to claim the crown? Or maybe 2019 champ Holly? She’s known for mothering two of her injured cubs as well as adopting an orphan.

A two-day “play-in” competition, called Fat Bear Junior, precedes the main event. The winning chubby cubby advances to the finals to go up against the big fellas.

Size isn’t the only factor in picking a winner. Style and persistence count. So does cuteness. Nearly 800,000 votes were cast last year, more than eight times as many as in 2014, the contest’s first year. Your vote can help pick the 2022 champ. (For details, see How to vote below.)

The winning bear receives nothing but the promise of a long winter’s snooze.

How to vote

Contest details are at explore.org/fat-bear-week. A parent or guardian must okay your vote because an email address is required for submission. Each address gets one vote per day. The site also has details on live chats about the bears (beginning Wednesday), ideas for classroom activities and other links.

Fat Bear Junior voting is Thursday and Friday. Voting for the main event runs October 5 to 11.

You can see what the bears are up to at the falls right now in the embedded video above or by going to the Explore.org brown bear livecam. There is a lot of other cool info on the site, too.

Brown bear facts

  • Brown bears are one of eight species in the family Ursidae, which includes polar bears and giant pandas. Grizzly bears are a type of brown bear.
  • Brown bears are found in North America, Europe and Asia. The total population is estimated at more than 200,000, with about half of them in Russia.
  • Cubs weigh about one pound at birth. Most adult males weigh 600 to 900 pounds in midsummer; hefty eaters top 1,000 pounds by October or November. Females weigh about one-third less.
  • In the wild, brown bears can live 20 to 30 years.
  • Brown bears are not picky eaters. They like grass, fruit, nuts, insects, reptiles, honey and, for those fortunate to be in Alaska, salmon.
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